June’s best beat tapes include several projects from L.A. beat scene veterans. Among them, you’ll find a collection of wide-ranging and banging beats with 8- and 16-bit samples, as well as a decidedly west coast record that combines hip-hop, R&B, and funk. Elsewhere, we highlight gritty, lo-fi beats from Boston, and a late-‘80s-inspired album pairing a variety of synth sounds with thundering, battle-ready drums.
The influence of early video game scores on the L.A. beat scene (and beat music writ large) is undeniable. You can hear its impact in the work of Flying Lotus and Jonwayne, and especially in that of their forebearer: DIBIA$E. The SP-404 wizard from Watts has been mining the jangling, bleeping, and blooping melodies of Japanese composers since 2007’s Up the Joystick (see also: Up the Joystick 2).
Bonus Levels is the most fully realized video game-inspired DIBIA$E project yet. It’s a love letter to Nintendo, Sega, and Capcom, an album that channels nostalgia for mashing sticky, sweat-slicked buttons in arcades and pulverizing seemingly invincible pixelated villains into 40 minutes of concussive and diverse beats full of 8- and 16-bit samples. There are beats of varying tempos with alternately head-nodding and jagged drums that hit like Bowser’s footsteps (“Wizard Spells”), as well as mellower, more melodic affairs (“Last Wave”). The meticulously-selected/arranged Nintendo commercials and vocal samples—both in the interludes (e.g., the clip of 2Pac in Juice at the end of “Castle Lair”) and inside tracks (e.g., the U-N-I lyrics in “Smack Fire”)—add to the album’s cohesiveness. DIBIA$E ends with the blistering footwork of “Blaster Master.” It’s proof that he’s capable of crushing any genre of beat music and a declaration: Bonus Levels is what it sounds like when you’ve mastered the game.
House Rabbi Vol. 4: Hennessy & Apple Juice
If you’re a fan of Zilla Rocca, the Philadelphia rapper responsible for pioneering noir-hop, you’ve likely heard at least one beat from Disco Vietnam (e.g., “Favors are Bad News”). The New York producer/instrumentalist recently uploaded each volume of his House Rabbi series to Bandcamp. The beats on Vietnam’s latest volume, Hennessy & Apple Juice, are some of his best to date and serve as an excellent score to a modern hip-hop noir. “Firewyrm,” with its wintry, music box-like melody, sirens, and pounding drums, strikes a delicate balance between melancholy and menace. It is the sound of a physically battered and mentally scarred private eye numbing the pain with the album’s titular drink as he steels himself for one final shootout. Vietnam’s greatest strength is that he’s equally adept at sampling and live instrumentation. “Cleopatra” is a short track of warped samples looped and layered to hypnotic effect, the drums knocking and swinging in rhythm. If someone told you it came from a batch of beats made for Marcberg, you wouldn’t blink. (The same could be said of the warm and soulful “Sly Little Bear.”) Opener “No Collusion,” on the other hand, pairs a resonant, infectious bassline and reverberating guitar with crunchy percussion. Play Hennessy & Apple Juice for anyone who thinks east coast rap needs a new approach.
Musicians have tried to aurally approximate the feeling of orbiting stars and planets for decades. You could argue that, at least collectively, no has come closer than the producers of L.A.’s beat scene. Elusive is a seasoned sonic astronaut, an L.A. producer whose jazz-imbued, electronic-leaning beats often summon images of shimmering constellations and psychedelic, multi-hued nebulae. Bonsai Tree, his latest project for Dome of Doom, is slightly more terrestrially bound than 2018’s Dissonance or 2017’s Moments and Cosmic Web. The heavy jazz influence remains, present in Thundercat-esque runs on bass (“Aesthetics”), as well as in the accompaniment on saxophone (“Luv Beam”) and trumpet (“Contrast”). For the most part, though, these are more subdued and open offerings from Elusive: songs with subtly complex percussion that are best suited for meditating on your place in the universe, as opposed to trying to imagine the feeling of flying through space. If Flying Lotus made a jazz lounge record, it might sound like Bonsai Tree.
Loman is a key figure in Boston’s rising beat scene. As the founder of Union Sound—a music tech shop and production studio that has since become a hub for budding and established producers alike—he also throws monthly beat shows at the Canopy Room in Bow Market with Nightworks founder Rah Zen. Like Rah Zen, Wowflower, Grubby Pawz, and several other emerging Boston producers, he has a distinctive sound that deserves a broader audience.
Spotta-Fi, Loman’s debut on Boston label City Yard Music, provides a solid introduction to that sound: gritty, truly lo-fi beats that modernize golden era boom-bap, as well as experiment with more off-kilter percussion, loops, and chops. “The Come Up,” a head-nod-inducing beat of dry drums complemented by melancholic plucking, falls into the former camp. “Dark Arts” on the other hand, is macabre and eerie, backed by a driving and occasionally halting drum loop. It, along with “Robin Banks” and many tracks on Spotta-Fi, would be the perfect score for any rapper in Griselda Gang or a contemporary adaptation of one of George V. Higgins’s Boston crime novels.
Super Natural Delights
Formerly known as TAKE (see 2010’s Only Mountain), Sweatson Klank is an L.A. beat scene veteran and a fixture in the L.A. music scene in general. Once a resident at the fabled Sketchbook weekly helmed by Kutmah, which laid groundwork for the beat scene mecca known as Low End Theory, he worked as a buyer at the revered and now long-shuttered Aron’s Records. Today, in addition to recording as Sweatson Klank, he teaches at Point Blank Music Academy.
Super Natural Delights, his latest release on venerable L.A. label Friends of Friends (Shlohmo, Daedelus, Groundislava), is a slight departure from the hip-hop and R&B-rooted chillstep of 2018’s Fine Lines—the lush and bouncing songs on Super Natural Delights have a funk bent. Using organic instrumentation (guitar, bass, flute, and more) along with analog synthesizers, drum machines, and samples, Klank has created a decidedly west coast album fit for neon-lit lounges and sunsets. Opener “Relax for a Living” could be part of the soundtrack to a blaxploitation reboot set in 2019, a soulful groove with bombastic horns broken by deft scratching and backed by thumping drums. “Walking on Air,” with its sensuous bassline and crisp, analog percussion, sounds at once modern and imported from the ‘80s; the flute in the track (and elsewhere on the record) are reminiscent of ‘90s g-funk tracks like Dre’s “Lil Ghetto Boy.” On standouts like “Brilliant Blue” and “Low Moon,” Klank creates deep funk grooves with smatterings of rap elements. Super Natural Delights isn’t what anyone would’ve anticipated from Klank, but it’s brilliant.
Late 80’s Baby
Late 80’s Baby, the Fresh Selects debut from Portland producer TROX, is a prime example of how to work with a theme while avoiding corniness and retaining your voice. TROX pulls samples from the titular era, but these aren’t cut-and-pasted loops with a few lackluster kicks and snares. TROX deftly layers and reworks fragments of his source material in his banging, funk-inflected suites. Throughout, he marries skull-cracking drums tailored for beat battles with alternately spacey and sun-gilded synths. Beats like “Fluid” and “V.S.O.P.” were created for people who hold Pete Rock and each iteration of “Quik’s Groove” in equal esteem. And songs like “What You Want” and “Spaceships on Retail” would fit in seamlessly on a playlist with tracks from modern funk purveyors like Dam-Funk and XL Middleton. Though Late 80’s Baby is largely cohesive, the deviations are as rewarding as the rest of the record. “Church Break I: Hallelujah” is chipmunk soul of The Heatmakerz stock, a beat perfect for Cam’ron to wax poetic about long Harlem nights and bricks heavier than Zion Williams. On “Battlefield,” TROX freaks new-wave samples into a thundering and swirling fever dream. This isn’t nostalgia; it’s something new entirely.